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Signature-gathering effort for jail levy takes shape

by: FILE PHOTO - The Columbia County Jail is expected to close midway through the year. Some county residents are rallying behind an effort to put a three-year operating levy on the May ballot and convince voters to pass it before the jail is shut down due to lack of funding.Petitioners hoping to save the Columbia County Jail from what county officials say is inevitable closure without new revenue this year have a set of hurdles between them and their goal.

The first obstacle is the petition itself. Although Columbia County commissioners indicated last week that they may refer a levy option to fund the jail to the May ballot, Commissioner Earl Fisher said he wants to see somewhere between 750 and 1,000 signatures in support of a ballot measure before the Board of County Commissioners will take action.

St. Helens City Councilor Susan Conn, who asked the board last Wednesday, Jan. 29, to move ahead with another levy vote, said Tuesday, Feb. 4, that she is confident enough signatures can be collected by Feb. 19.

by: MARK MILLER - Conn“The commissioners are asking for proof that a groundswell exists for support,” Conn said. “There are more people every day who ask for signature sheets. Yesterday, I had a phone call from one of the commissioners who’d been approached, and he had someone who’d been collecting signatures on a napkin. And so I asked him if he would accept that, and he said ‘sure.’”

The Feb. 19 deadline, which Conn said was imposed by the county commissioners, is one of the only remnants of the route Conn and her group were initially planning to take.

Randy Sanders, a St. Helens resident who started a group called Columbia County Works Together to advocate for a jail levy last month, said Tuesday that he and Conn wanted to pursue a ballot initiative. But the requirements for a group of citizens to petition an initiative onto the ballot were too steep, he conceded.

The group would have to turn in 1,211 signatures from registered Columbia County voters to the county elections supervisor by a Feb. 19 deadline.

Fisher set a lower bar last week for the number of signatures he wants to see before the Board of County Commissioners commits to putting a levy on the ballot, and Conn said Tuesday that petitioners are not limiting themselves to getting signatures only from people registered to vote in Columbia County.

Still, the Feb. 19 deadline is looming.

Conn said that as of Tuesday afternoon, she had personally collected some 60 signatures. But she said many others, including some businesses and city council members in the county, are also contributing to the signature-gathering effort.

“There are a lot of people working on this,” said Conn, “and I’ve been working harder at getting the signature forms out than I have actually collecting signatures.”

If Columbia County Works Together and its allies gather and turn in enough signatures to impress the county commissioners, the next test will be what comes out of their effort.

Conn said she wants to see a levy on property taxes at the same annual rate of 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value that commissioners unsuccessfully asked voters to approve last November. Conn said she thinks the measure should commit to funding jail operations for just three years, as opposed to the four years last year’s measure was to fund. The total amount for such a levy would be about $7.07 million.*

County Commissioner Tony Hyde referred to a three-year levy option during a meeting Wednesday, Feb. 5. He said he saw “overwhelming support ... for a call to action on our part to give the levy, for a three-year levy, one more chance” at a public forum Thursday, Jan. 30, in Clatskanie.

If a levy option is placed on the May ballot, supporters will then face the ultimate hurdle: convincing Columbia County voters to reverse their decision last fall and approve the levy.

In his Jan. 28 blog post announcing the formation and purpose of Columbia County Works Together, Sanders wrote that the group was hoping to unite concerned citizens from across the political spectrum behind the cause of keeping the jail open.

“Conservatives and liberals alike certainly have many issues that divide them — but at any given time — there are at least one that unites them,” Sanders wrote. “This is where Columbia County Works Together checks in. One issue at a time, discussed and agreed to by all involved. Our first issue is to solve the jail crisis.”

Conn alluded to that mission Tuesday, suggesting that voters last fall were “diverted” by other issues.

“People have concerns about the way it was done in the first place — the size of the jail, the way it was funded or not funded,” Conn said. “There are people who are unhappy with one or more of the county commissioners. There’s people who are unhappy with the sheriff. But really, that doesn’t resolve the problem. The problem exists. The problem is that we still need to have that piece of the justice system.”

If the jail closes due to lack of funding, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office will likely have to house their 10 highest-priority inmates in the Polk County Jail, nearly two hours south by road from the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office in south St. Helens.

* This story previously stated the amount sought by petitioners as $9.57 million, based on an incorrect understanding of the three-year levy proposal. The figure has been corrected.

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